Carmen Lundy: Freedom in Music Personified

The tide is turning for an under-recognized song stylist

Poet Robert Frost’s credo about the road less traveled applies to plenty of jazz musicians, but rarely to the degree of singer-songwriter and visual artist Carmen Lundy. Across a career that now spans five decades, Lundy has-often, though not always, intentionally-favored back roads and bumpy paths.

When, in the early 1970s, the University of Miami offered no appropriate curriculum, she enrolled as an opera major and then single-handedly carved out a vocal jazz program. When hopes of signing with a major jazz label were repeatedly dashed, she found routes, stretching from Japan to Montreal, to get her music out there, finally settling in at the indie Afrasia, established expressly for her and her catalog. At a time when New York City was the epicenter of the entire music world, she opted to relocate to the comparative jazz desert of Los Angeles. And from the beginning she’s refused to stay within the safe confines of the Great American Songbook, instead filling album after album with self-penned material.

Much of which helps explain why Lundy, easily on par with Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves, remains significantly less known and less heralded than any of her peers.

But the tide is slowly turning. Though Lundy has always maintained a rigorous touring schedule, her dates are steadily escalating in both scope and prestige. Her recent jam-packed itinerary included the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center, the Hollywood Bowl, Tokyo’s Cotton Club and the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. And, likely because she has settled into a deeply satisfying creative groove at Afrasia-with four releases since 2006, including her latest, Changes-her music is generating increased critical awareness and airplay.

Lundy’s story begins in Miami, where she was born on Nov. 1, 1954. The eldest of seven children, she was followed, 11 months to the day, by brother Curtis, the celebrated bass player whose career has continuously intersected hers. Her parents divorced when Lundy was in high school, and her mother worked multiple jobs-seamstress, social worker, decorator, domestic-to raise her brood on her own. But she always found time for the church choir, singing in a gospel group that Carmen’s grandfather had founded. “My mother was a powerful, beautiful singer,” says Curtis. “If she’d been classically trained, she probably could have been on the level of Leontyne Price. That’s where my sister got it from.”

Shortly after starting at the University of Miami, Lundy and pal David Roitstein, now director of the jazz department at CalArts, formed a group called Shadow and landed a long-term engagement at the tony Eden Roc Hotel. “Here we were,” she recalls, “going to our jazz theory classes at 8:30 in the morning and, come 4:30 in the afternoon until one in the morning, playing at the Eden Roc. And we did that for our entire university years.”

After graduation, Lundy briefly formed a band with Curtis and fellow schoolmate Bruce Hornsby before departing for New York. With encouragement from legendary producer George Butler, who intimated a deal with Columbia was in the offing, she scraped together enough money to go into Van Gelder Studio to record an album-length demo. Her band on that recording included Curtis, drummer Victor Lewis, trombonist Steve Turre and two Miami pals, saxophonist Bobby Watson and Cuban-born percussionist Mayra Casales, who was also Lundy’s roommate and has remained her best friend and a trusted collaborator ever since. “Carmen has the ability to bring out the best in you,” says Casales. “She also kicks ass! When I’m in the studio or on a gig with her I always say, ‘Fasten your seatbelts, everybody, we’re working with Carmen!'”

Lundy was crushed when Butler abruptly decided to pass. (Equally disappointing, later in her career, were similarly curt rejections from Blue Note and Verve.) But, demonstrating the pluck that has long defined her, she sent the demo tapes to jazz educator Herbert Wong in San Francisco, who released them as Good Morning Kiss in 1985 on his BlackHawk label. The album proved a significant success, rising to No. 3 on Billboard’s jazz chart. Meanwhile, she was hired by saxophonist Mike Morgenstern to serve as the resident vocalist at his Manhattan club Jazzmania Society. “I worked every weekend with whoever was booked,” she recalls. “It would be Kenny Barron one weekend, then Don Pullen the next, then Jaki Byard. I got to play with all the great bass players, all the drummers, and that’s what led me to getting other gigs. One of these guys would need a vocalist and they’d call me.” She also gained attention as an actress, playing Billie Holiday in an off-off-Broadway production, then headlining a touring company of the Ellington-inspired Broadway smash Sophisticated Ladies.

With her debut release, Lundy set a recording pattern that has, apart from a one-off platter of standards recorded for Sony Japan in 1987, never varied: each album comprising mostly original tunes-her songwriting suggests the craftsmanship of classic American tunesmiths blended with a keen pop sensibility-plus a smattering of judiciously selected covers.

Despite the warm reception for Good Morning Kiss, seven years passed before her next domestic album, Moment to Moment, released on the Arabesque label in 1992. A two-record deal with JVC Japan followed. Then, in 1999, Curtis, signed to Montreal’s Justin Time label, invited her to sing on three tracks on his Against All Odds. That led to her own signing with Justin Time and the back-to-back release of two of her finest albums-This Is Carmen Lundy and Something to Believe In-both produced by her brother.

The move west happened in 1991. “L.A. is not the place to come if you’re trying to build a career in jazz,” she laughs. “But I have a space in my home-my own woodshed-where I can play and write and record all day. It’s an important part of why I’ve been able to grow as an artist without being in New York.”

In 2010, she spent months in that woodshed working alone on a series of demos. The resultant tracks proved to be so completely polished that Elisabeth Oei, Lundy’s manager and Afrasia’s founder, released them as Solamente. Then, again stretching her creative muscles, Lundy began experimenting on the guitar, an instrument she hadn’t touched since childhood. “I had guitars everywhere in my house,” she confesses. “I began to learn to play changes, and I couldn’t believe what was happening; a whole new world opened up to me and all these new tunes just happened.” When it came time to go into the studio, Oei said they’d need a guitar player and suggested the legendary Oscar Castro-Neves. “So,” says Carmen, “he came into the studio, and [drummer] Jamison [Ross], the youngest member of the group, was listening to the playback and said, ‘Oh my God, the changes!’ and I said, ‘That’s it, Changes!'”

Purposefully crafted as an album you can dance to, Changes is a rallying cry of sorts. “We’ve gotten so far away from that in jazz,” she laments. “Swing was inspired by dance. Now we play for ourselves too much. We approach music from such a heady place. We’re losing the audience because we can’t get them to bop along with us. Who wants to sit in the audience and count 11? I don’t!” Curtis loudly applauds his sister’s perspective. “Young musicians seem to want to turn their back on swing,” he says, “which is what gave them the ability to be in the position they’re in. It’s the blood, sweat and tears that our forefathers put into this music.” Adds Oei, “As she says in her song ‘Dance the Dance’ [on Changes], ‘That’s what it feels like to be free.’ And that’s what Carmen is: freedom in music personified.”